A parent’s socioeconomic status may influence his or her perceptions of how a child is doing in school, according to research by Chicago Booth’s Rebecca Dizon-Ross. Poorer, less educated parents may be less accurate in predicting academic strength and weakness, which can lead them to make poor choices about their children’s education.
Education can be expensive for parents, who shell out money on textbooks, uniforms, and informal school fees for their children. To assess the outcomes of inaccurate beliefs on educational investments, Dizon-Ross conducted field experiments in Malawi, where just 60 percent of pupils complete primary school, through age 13. She delivered information on students’ school performance to parents, and studied how that impacted the parents’ investments in their children’s education. The experiment included a sample of 2,634 households with two or more children across 39 schools.
As part of the experiment, Dizon-Ross offered parents the chance to enter a lottery that would award a scholarship for secondary schooling to one child age 14–17, provided that child could pass the school’s entrance exam. Parents received nine tickets for the lottery and had to allocate those tickets between two of their children. They could give all tickets to one child, or divide the tickets between both. Most parents awarded more tickets to the child they believed best able to pass the entrance exam. But one-third of all parents misidentified which child would do better on the exam, according to the research. When informed about their children’s performance, parents were substantially more likely to award the tickets to the higher-performing child.
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Researchers find a gap between parents’ perception and children’s actual academic performance.
Average absolute value of gap, in standard deviations of the performance distribution
Group with least education
Group with most education
Source: Dizon-Ross, 2016
When parents received new information about their children’s achievement, dropout rates also fell among high-performing students. “Providing parents with [new] information significantly impacts their investments, causing them to become more closely aligned with their children’s achievement,” Dizon-Ross writes.
Wealthier, more educated families responded less to the information. This is because they predicted their children’s academic performance more accurately to begin with. One reason: the uneducated, low-income parents in the study had children going farther in school and learning different things than they themselves had learned. Some parents were too intimidated to speak to their children’s teachers, Dizon-Ross learned in interviews. This led to a disconnect between what parents perceived about their children’s performance and how their children were actually performing.
Inaccurate beliefs can distort investments, she concludes. The problem likely goes beyond developing countries and is more prevalent where parents are less educated. And mistakes made by individual parents have large repercussions for spending on education, distorting investments in the aggregate.
“Information may thus decrease the inter-generational persistence of inequalities, even as it may increase inequality within a given generation, as some parents invest more in their higher performers,” Dizon-Ross writes.